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DNR to provide water for affected Starks residents as further PFAS testing reveals even higher levels of contamination

People wait for the Stella Town Hall to open ahead of Thursday's meeting with staff from the Departments of Natural Resources and Health Services.
Katie Thoresen
People wait for the Stella Town Hall to open ahead of Thursday's meeting with staff from the Departments of Natural Resources and Health Services.

Just over a month since the initial meeting with representatives from the Wisconsin Departments of Natural Resources and Health Services, people from Starks and the surrounding area packed into the Stella Town Hall Thursday evening.

Once again, there is no shortage of questions for state officials surrounding the extreme levels of PFAS contamination in private wells.

There are still not a lot of answers as this situation is still in its early stages, especially to the many questions about the cause and what can be done about it.

The DNR says it could take years to find an answer if they do at all.

“It doesn’t behave like other things in the environment. Investigation into PFAS, but really like any other contaminant can take years. In some cases, we’re not going to find a responsible party. We’re going to look, and we might find that we can’t tell where it’s coming from. We could find that there are multiple sources responsible. It’s an iterative process and it’s one that takes time,” said Christine Sieger with the DNR.

Several people have reached out to WXPR with concerns that sludge spread on agricultural fields in the area may be the cause and questions about it were also brought up in the meeting.

This was DNR Administrator for the Division of Environmental Management Jim Zellmer’s response when WXPR asked him during a media briefing earlier in the day if the DNR was looking into that as a possible source of contamination.

“Yes, that certainly is a potential source and, as Christine had mentioned right now, we are compiling all the information that we have from our database as well as what we can learn from both neighboring states and federal partners to try and identify that as far as potential sources and biosolids is one of those,” said Zellmer.

The DNR says the EPA is involved and supporting its work with local governments and state partners. The agency doesn’t know exactly what that support will look like yet.

Since WXPR’s initial reporting on this issue, six more wells have been tested.

More testing

Out of the 38 total wells tested, 24 have come back with PFAS levels above the DHS recommended level of 20 parts per trillion [ppt].

Those wells have a wide range of PFAS levels.

DNR records show combined PFOA and PFOS levels, two of the best-known PFAS variants, range from 25 ppt up to 45,000 ppt.

A couple of homes also fall under the DHS recommended level of 20 ppt but above the EPA advisory level of 0.02 ppt for PFOS.

There have also been some wells with no discernable level of PFAS.

Health advisories have been issued to all homes with test results above the 20 ppt mark. Those homes also qualify to receive water through the DNR.

DNR to provide clean water

The DNR has contracted with Culligan Water to provide 5-gallon jugs of water to affected residents, according to DNR Director of Emerging Contaminants Mimi Johnson.

DNR and DHS staff answer questions about the PFAS contamination in private wells in Starks.
Katie Thoresen
DNR and DHS staff answer questions about the PFAS contamination in private wells in Starks.

“Residents interested in service are required to request it through the DNR and sign an access agreement to the state and vendor before receiving water delivery. Residents should not contact Culligan directly if they’re requesting the DNR to pay for the bottled water,” said Johnson.

When questions of how residents in Starks could get clean water came up in the initial December 13th meeting on the issue, the DNR told people it would work with local government, but that funding was an issue for both water and expanding the testing zone beyond the initial one-mile radius.

Christine Sieger with the DNR says bottled water will be initially funded through the agency for six months, then it will re-evaluate.

“The DNR hasn’t received any additional money to provide bottled water or assist with this PFAS response in general. We’re working to free up the money,” said Sieger. “We’re going to maybe not do some other things we were planning on so that we can provide this water.”

The DNR is also planning on expanding its testing zone for private wells in the area. Though details on when that will happen and how many more homes it will include have not been decided.

It’s also brought in a hydrogeologist to map how the groundwater moves in the area which will hopefully lead to a source of PFAS contamination.

Long-term solutions

While there’s now a short-term fix to getting clean drinking water to those who need it, the larger question of what to do long-term remains.

Many of these PFAS levels are likely too high for filters to work and it’s questionable if drilling new wells would help since contamination has been found in both shallow and deep-drilled wells.

There’s also a matter of who would pay for the fixes and how.

That was the main topic of conversation at the Stella meeting Thursday.

Currently,the DNR does have up to $16,000 grants available for affected homes, but it has some income restrictions.

It also only covers the initial treatment or replacement of the well. Once people have safe drinking water again, the cost is on them for upkeep.

With PFAS levels this high, Mark Pauli with the DNR’s Drinking Water and Groundwater program says they’ll need a lot of upkeep.

“The higher the PFAS concentration likely the more often that the media has got to be changed out. Meaning more expense for the homeowner,” Pauli told people at the meeting.

State Senator Mary Felzkowski (R-Tomahawk), who was in attendance at the meeting, urged people to not give up or get overwhelmed by the problems stacking up.

She told people that Joint Finance Committee is considering using some of the state surplus in the next budget to fund solutions for PFAS situations like this.

“We’re looking at putting large sums of money on the side to help with this whole process. I just don’t know what that’s going to look like yet,” said Felzkowki.

In the meantime, the DNR has set up a webpage focused solely on the Stella PFAS situation. People can find relevant information as well as sign up for alerts on any updates.

Katie Thoresen is WXPR's News Director/Vice President.
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